It was March 2005, and Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State were all on their way to the Sweet 16. The teams showed up around the same time at Raleigh-Durham International, and their planes stretched out on the tarmac, one after the other.
Chris Collins, the assistant coach at Duke, took notice of the moment. Here was the second-to-last weekend of the NCAA tournament, and three teams separated by about 25 miles of highway had all converged on one runway.
We were all going to our different regions, different areas, he said earlier this week. We kind of gave the head nod and the wave and the good luck and it makes it great.
The scene reinforced what Collins has long believed that this area, the 28-mile radius that includes Duke, UNC and N.C. State has no equal in the world of college basketball. All three teams have won multiple national championships, combining for 11 overall. They have won 46 of the 59 ACC basketball tournaments.
Practice opens later this week, with games beginning in mid-November. And this season could be unlike any other for the three local longtime rivals and the people who so passionately root for or against the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack.
When the Associated Press releases its first top 25 poll later this month, Duke, UNC and N.C. State are likely to be among the top 15 in the preseason poll as a group for the first time. As it is, the preseason poll hasnt included all three teams since 2007, and only five times have all three been ranked among the top 20 entering a season.
Each enters this season surrounded by questions: How will UNC, which welcomes a highly rated recruiting class and returns several key contributors, react to the loss of four of its top five players? Can N.C. State handle the pressure and expectations if the Wolfpack are, as expected, picked to win the ACC?
Can Duke, without Austin Rivers, find the chemistry it lacked last season and put its talented pieces together?
Along with those questions, though, are great expectations. In todays version of college basketball, where teams constantly evolve and sometimes completely change year-to-year, all three might just have enough and in the case of N.C. State, perhaps more than enough to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
I think in todays game all of them can do it, said Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst who played at Duke from 1983-86. Watching Kansas last year proved that. I dont think that was one of Bill Selfs better teams.
Todays game is so different because the teams are so young.
An unpredictable game has now gotten more unpredictable, Bilas said.
Back to the future
Bilas played in a different era, and in a different ACC. He arrived at Duke in 1983-84, the season after N.C. State won its most recent national championship. Michael Jordan was in his final season at UNC, two years removed from a national title of its own. And Duke, with a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski, was just starting to become the national power it remains today.
This season, then, represents both a throwback and a reminder of how much the game has changed. On one hand, Duke, UNC and N.C. State will enter the season as national contenders. Its reminiscent of the 1980s, when the three programs were ranked among the top 20 in the preseason three times.
On the other hand, the preseason expectations surrounding the programs are a reminder of how much college basketball has changed. UNC, for instance, lost Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller each a top-17 pick in the NBA draft and yet the Tar Heels, who could rely heavily on freshman point guard Marcus Paige, are likely to enter the season ranked among the top 15.
Duke lost its best player, Rivers, but expectations remain high given the addition of freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and the return of Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee, all of whom averaged double figures in scoring a season ago.
And then theres N.C. State, which is expected to enter the season as conference favorite thanks to the return of Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie and the addition of a highly ranked recruiting class led by Raleighs Rodney Purvis. But it wasnt long ago, before the Wolfpacks surprising run to the regional semifinals in March, when the Wolfpack gathered with frayed nerves on Selection Sunday, simply hoping to make the tournament field.
Entering a season amid hype and high expectations was the norm for the Wolfpack back when David Thompson played in the 1970s. Thompson, a two-time national player of the year who led the Wolfpack to the 1974 national championship, said it should be that way again.
Its been a long time coming, he said on Friday, before being inducted into the Wolfpacks inaugural athletics hall of fame class. I think coach (Mark Gottfried) is doing a good job with recruiting ... It feels like it should be. N.C. State should be competitive, and they should be up there.
Pack is back
For Duke and UNC, lofty preseason expectations have long been routine. In the 2000s, both programs have entered the season ranked No. 1 three times. But the Wolfpack, which hasnt been selected by the media to win the ACC since 1974, has entered a realm it hasnt experienced this century.
States probably as talented as any team (nationally), Bilas said. Now theyre expected to do it, and thats a little bit of a different thing so its something of a maturity test, really. Are they going to stay hungry and driven to be good at that level? Because theyre not going to sneak up on anybody anymore.
Throughout the history of the ACC, and even before its formation in 1953, Duke, UNC and N.C. State have tried to keep one another down, while inadvertently helping one another grow stronger. It was that way in the beginning, when Everett Cases dominant N.C. State teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s prompted UNC to get better, and it did under Frank McGuire.
And it has been that way recently, while N.C. State has fought during the past two decades to regain the place on the national stage it once shared with UNC and Duke.
Now, then, its almost like old times all three teams entering a season with realistic hopes of winning a championship, ACC or otherwise.
Ive always said that its great for our conference, its great for college basketball, when all three programs in the Triangle have elite teams, Collins said. And that certainly seems to be the case this year All three schools and fan bases have high aspirations for what they can achieve and it always makes it fun in this area.
Collins has experienced the energy of this area as a player and coach. He played in Dukes 102-100 double-overtime loss against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1995. A year later, his long 3-pointer bounced for an eternity on a loose rim at Reynolds Coliseum, and the shot fell to give Duke an improbable victory at N.C. State.
As a coach he has been around for more memorable moments, including that one in the airport back in 2005. Thats the last time Duke, UNC and N.C. State all reached the regional semifinals in the same season and it had only happened twice before that, in 1989 and 86.
None of those seasons, though, began with the collective expectations expected this season with all three teams likely to be among the top 15 entering the season for the first time.